Teacher of the Week - Jennifer Birch

Jennifer Birch

Assistant Professor,  Department of Anthropology

“My experience has been that people excel at those things they enjoy most.” 

The Center for Teaching and Learning recognizes Jennifer Birch as CTL Teacher of the Week.  Birch is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology.

Dr. Jennifer Birch never misses an opportunity to treat her students as if they are her professional colleagues. Where some teachers may reinforce perceptions that they inhabit a lofty, inaccessible world, Dr. Birch recognizes the value of inviting her students into this world early and often. After all, many of them are on track for careers in academia. When asked to identify the leading factors in her own success, Birch points to the teachers and mentors who built up her confidence by treating her with the same collegial respect and high expectations.

Birch leads a field school each semester at the Singer-Moye Archaeological Settlement History project in southwest Georgia. Through the field school, she is able to involve her students in evaluating the history of a Mississippian mound-and-plaza complex dating to approximately 1100 A.D. Students are given a great deal of autonomy and responsibility for the direction of their efforts. They formulate research questions, determine the excavation strategy, and interpret the results. They are even given the opportunity to present the results at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. Birch believes strongly in the value of this experience, saying, “Through this process they become full members of the community of researchers and competent academics.”

To further prepare students for academic careers, Birch uses an activity called the “conference elevator conversation.” As the name suggests, this activity is meant to simulate the scenario of attending a conference and finding yourself in an elevator with a preeminent member of your field. With a brief window of unfettered access, a rare opportunity is presented for direct feedback from an expert. Students are paired up and given two minutes to deliver an elevator pitch to their partner who responds with one piece of feedback. Afterwards, roles are reversed and partners are switched giving everyone multiple chances to deliver and hone their research summary. The end result is a wealth of valuable feedback for each student and a more open, participatory classroom atmosphere after everyone has made the rounds of introductions and interactions.

Dr. Birch’s strategies push students out of their comfort zones, causing them to think more deeply about the subject. They take on daunting tasks which, once completed, leave them with an expanded notion of their own capabilities, far more prepared for the next step in their academic careers. Having taken Birch’s courses three times as an undergraduate, Rebekah Tamar Helfgot confirms this, saying “The projects and assignments she created challenged me to think about the world in a different way, and the writing intensive nature of her classes prepared me for the rigor of graduate level classes…I’m so glad that UGA is recognizing her as the outstanding professor she is.”

See Birch’s departmental profile: http://anthropology.uga.edu/directory/people/jennifer-birch